Ashley Gore is poised to graduate from high school with a 4.6 grade point average. She’s taken multiple advancement placement classes, ranks sixth in her class, and has some pretty nice SAT scores.
But the senior at Poly High School in Riverside, California, has two B’s, which bug her. And she has only two service projects to put on her college applications, when most applications have room for 10.
And she’s well aware that she weakened her GPA by doing newspaper for four years. Since journalism is not a "weighted" class, an A in journalism is only worth 4 GPA points rather than 5.
"I also know people who wanted to join the school choir," Gore said, "but they felt they couldn't do choir because it's not weighted."
Gore is one of many of thousands of high school students who have spent four years playing a game that no one consciously created — a game many critics now argue is twisting American high school students into moral and intellectual pretzels.
Gore is quite good at this game, but she knows she’s not the very best. And she’s painfully aware that the game itself is perverse — even as she plays it. She and her friends have, she says, repeatedly sacrificed real learning to get the grade. The admissions system is so seductive and so controlling that she’s had to fight her own impulse to conform.
Lloyd Thacker understands Gore’s dilemma.
A former high school guidance counselor, Thacker runs the Education Conservancy, a Portland, Oregon-based nonprofit that aims to radically change the college admissions process.
"Getting into college is now a commercially charged process that allocates opportunity but also allocates values," Thacker said. "There is no conscience guiding this system, and it's distorting students' relationships with learning in troubling ways."
Thacker is a driving force behind “Turning the Tide,” a new report he co-authored, published by the Harvard Graduate School of Education's Making Caring Common Project and endorsed by over 85 major college stakeholders, including deans of admissions from the most elite American universities.
In 2004, when he started this effort, the drive for higher education standards was in full swing, and Thacker was a voice in the wilderness. Today, he’s part of a rising chorus of stakeholders out to reform a college admissions system that, they argue, is driving some kids too hard while others shrug and give up.
Gore says that during her high school years she often felt pressure to get the grade, even if she sacrificed learning to do it. And her friends have had the same experience, feeling pressure to pursue grades and resume fillers, like community service, purely for profile points.
"At some point, you are trying to win a game, not gain any lasting learning," Gore said. "And you also don't make much of a contribution to the community."
Gore serves on the Board of Directors for a local substance abuse and mental health nonprofit, and she has organized peer tutoring services. But she knows that other students have been aggressive on this front, tallying hours and checking off long lists of community service.
Gore's parents do not have blue-blood academic pedigrees. Both now work in law enforcement after attending less prestigious area colleges, and Ashley is unsure what their college majors were.
The academic pressure did not come from her parents, she says, who view themselves as having been average or indifferent students and have expressed puzzlement at Ashley’s drive.
So who taught Gore the game?
Partly, it's structure, she says. "When you first get to high school, you see there are honors classes and regular classes," Gore said, "and that when you have to decide to opt into the game or opt out.”
And partly, it's peer modeling. "You look at people getting into certain colleges, and people who aren't getting into those schools, and you see what you need to become to be successful," Gore said. "And success is defined as getting into a good college, even if you don't know what you want to do there."
“Kids are suffering”
Thacker's mission at the Education Conservancy, which he founded in 2004, is to redirect high school education so that it focuses on building in the present rather than gaming the future.
Prior to founding the Education Conservancy, Thacker, 62, split his education career working in admissions offices at three different colleges before working as a guidance counselor at Portland's Jesuit High School from the early 1980s until 2004.
Thacker decries the changes he witnessed in the past 30 years in college admissions — more AP and honors classes, growing checklists of pro-forma service engagements, and ever-greater stress experienced by students and fomented by parents and admissions officers.
"I worked with these kids and I watched their eyes," Thacker said. "These kids are suffering." Overachieving kids, he says, are distorting their high school experience to create a perfect but phony profile they deem necessary to get into the best schools, while those who can't keep pace, often for family reasons, feel there is no point in trying.
After 28 years working to get kids into college, Thacker left his job as a high school counselor in 2004 to write "College Unranked: Ending the College Admissions Frenzy" and found the Education Conservancy, through which he is building a broad-based reform coalition of educators at both the supply (high school) and demand (college) sides of the equation.
Among the results of Thacker's efforts is BigFuture, a nonprofit partnership with the College Board, the nonprofit that manages both the SAT test and AP classes. BigFuture helps students find the best college fit for their lives and needs, rather than chasing artificial college rankings.
The college admissions pressure cooker hits kids at both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum, says Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Education.
In 2007, Pope founded Challenge Success, a nonprofit that works with schools to create better balance and healthier development, countering the "overemphasis on grades, test scores, and rote answers (that) has stressed out some kids and marginalized many more."
At one end are kids with fewer resources or difficult family circumstances who might need to care for siblings or grandparents or hold down a part-time job while in high school. They often have a hard time doing extracurricular work or taking multiple AP courses.
At the other extreme are the striving children of well-off parents who feel pressure to perform on grades and to stack up extracurricular credentials to get in to elite schools.
"One set of students is stressing over five to six AP classes," Pope said, "while the other set is babysitting or working multiple jobs to help support the family."
What kids see in this system, she said, is that "it asks them to sacrifice sleep and take classes they are not interested in and get in over their heads and do as many activities as they can squeeze into the day."
She cites a litany of surveys showing that American teens are sleeping too little, worrying too much, suffering from depression and feeling pressured to compromise their ethics.
Challenge Success currently works with 130 public schools, Pope said, helping to educate students, parents and counselors on alternatives to the current pressure paradigm.
On the community service front, Pope wants to see students become part of a like-minded community that shares their passions, rather than feeling like they have to do unusual projects in remote places.
"The science on service and altruism is becoming more and more clear," Pope said, "but when you belong to a community, you are healthier and happier and more motivated."
Authentic service also gives you an opportunity to form enduring bonds with people who are different from you. This is what separates "service" from "charity," Pope said. Charity carries an air of distance and condescension, while service suggests working together.
"We need to send a message to the these kids that you don't have to do habitat for humanity to pad your resume to catch the eye of an admissions officer," Pope said.
There is, of course, the danger that even the new authenticity of "sustained community service" will become another form of gaming, Pope acknowledges.
Countering that temptation to game the new model will be the job of high school leaders like Mike Roe, Ashley Gore’s principal at Poly High School.
Roe describes a conversation he had with one student, who told him that his friends had encouraged him to join student government and service organizations because "it looks good on your resume."
"I took a step back," Roe said, "and realized we really need to address as a community how we define success and how we engage parents and children in conversations about ethics and virtue."
As a partial response to this challenge, starting this year, all seniors at Poly High School are asked in their 12th grade English classes to complete a capstone project based on the archetypal "heroic journey."
"You have to give kids an opportunity to tell their stories," Roe said.
The new capstone at Poly High asks students to write three essays in which they lay out their origin story, explore tools and strengths they bring to their challenges, and do a deep exploration of their personal beliefs.
The project also includes interviews with family or other historical explorations, and building a personal website. In the second semester, students will be asked to do a significant project in the community that fits into the narrative they have built.
This exploration of strengths and identity is all very much a work in progress, Roe says, but the teachers have eagerly embraced the challenge.
"We are asking kids to be vulnerable," Roe said, "and the adults in the classroom need to be more vulnerable as well. That is not easy to do. But when you can share these experiences, that is how you build the seeds of empathy."
"Empathy" and "ethical choices" may sound like just new buzz words. It is, of course, always a risk with a paradigm shift that a new game will simply emerge.
But Gore says the senior capstone course at Poly High has already helped temper misplaced drive by helping her look more deeply into her own motives and character and look outside herself into her community.
"The first semester," she said, "focused on who we are as people and where we come from. No one really asks you about that in school. You can go through 12 years and never get asked about who you are."
The second semester of the capstone points the students outward, asking them to do a project on an issue in the community and then spend 10 hours working with a project that tackles it.
"It's pushing us to (move) away from the achievement culture and toward contributing to the community," Gore said. As she speaks, she's deliberating on her topic, which is due the next week.
She contrasts what she is learning now with a trip she took during her freshman year, visiting Stanford University with her family, buying the sweatshirt and touring the campus.
"I was so excited, even though I didn't know why I wanted to go to Stanford," Gore said. "It's taken me awhile to realize that it's not about whether it's a sweatshirt school. It's about what is the best fit for you."
Gore is now waiting for her college applications to come back. Even with great numbers, she's not confident that she'll get into top schools. She hopes for U.C. Berkeley, but also has an eye on Pomona College in nearby Claremont.
Wherever Gore goes, she's not likely to end up working for Goldman Sachs. She's considering an English major and would like to become a high school teacher. "I look at the teachers who have helped show me that it's not all about grades," she says, "and I'd like to be that kind of influence on other students."